SUSAN GRAHAM                                                      
  Sculpture       Photography      Installation



















September 5, 2011

When Bad is Good: Creativity and the Downturn

by Claire Lieberman, Art Experience NYCVol. I, No. 3, Summer 2011, pp. 25-35

MONEY AND ART always operate in a maze. Amidst the hazy morass of arts funding cuts and gallery closings, I set out to see how creativity is faring amongst artists as the current economic situation endures. I thought about the ways in which fiscal circumstances are enmeshed with other issues, ranging from fractious political exchanges, ongoing cultural clashes, and of course, military conflicts. Given this complex set of concerns, I decided to focus on artists’ responses. I spoke with several artists presently showing or living in New York about their experiences and impressions. I communicated with several by email: Jen Dalton, Teresita Fernandez, Susan Graham, Michelle Jaffé, David Kramer, Ross Racine, Regina Silveira, and spoke with Terry Adkins and New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress by phone. Carol Kino, New York Times art critic, emailed some thoughts as well. I asked how the state of the economy might shape creative practice, perhaps affecting themes, materials, sources, size, and approach, even venue choices. I wondered if the downturn might cause artists to think about their work differently and if they noticed any trends amongst their friends. I found some surprising answers.

So what’s new? Is the downturn having an impact on individual creativity? What impulses, desires emerge? Have any trends appeared?

Asked if the economy has affected his work, Terry Adkins says: “No, not really. My work is steeped in mercurial flu- idity and intuitively adapts to adversity of any sort. My world view prompts the consideration of how much more difficult it is for others to maintain their creative edge amidst the extremely devastating circumstances of war and poverty.” We spoke about how major financial enti- ties exert broad sway over economic conditions (in the arts and elsewhere) that are intertwined with other crises. Adkins states: “The art industry is fueled by the excess of the gigantic.”

Ross Racine comments: “During this recession, the huge difference between the higher priced sector of the art world and the rest of the art market parallels the huge difference between the financial sector in general (doing very well) and the rest of society (doing not so good, to put it mildly). There is a total disconnect between the financially well-off sector of the art world, resting on inflated prices, and the rest of the art world. They are like two different planets.”

Jen Dalton does find the state of the economy impacts her work, but is aware of the same effect in high rolling instances. She articulates some thoughts: “I’ve found inspiration in the state of the economy and our culture’s response to it. I’ve made some work directly about it. Are Times of Recession Good for Art? is a work I made that allows viewers to vote on the question by taking a chocolate coin out of one of two gumball machines. And fellow artist William Powhida and I collaborated on a set of recession-themed greeting cards called Our Condolences, that use gallows humor and schadenfreude as coping mechanisms. Though the economic situation is much worse than it was a few years ago for those who make and love art (not to mention everyone else), as an artist looking for compelling subject matter, it’s not entirely different from the inspiration I found in the crazy boom times and all the frenzy that surrounded the rising prices.”

Teresita Fernandez writes on the scope of new works: “I’m fortunate in that I always have many projects going on at once. Many serious collectors, as well as founda- tions, don’t want to just buy from art fairs, but rather seek that special piece that’s been made for a specific context or site. I’m selective about what I do—the con- text has to be somewhat inspiring, but often these bigger projects also come with ambitious vision and bigger budgets that allow me to experiment and realize large- scale works. Interestingly enough, while the economy has gone through ups and downs, the demand for these more expensive large-scale projects has increased.”

David Kramer notices a paradox, a sense that what he visualizes is being received differently. He states: “Back when the economy was humming along and money was being thrown around all over the place, I never seemed to make a dime. So it wasn’t like I had to suddenly reconsider everything when it came to my work. And the themes of my work, which really also have not changed, were really about me feeling sorry for myself. They were about me trying to understand how all of my hard work and all of my ideas about this American Dream, all seemed to be blowing up right in front of me. Ironically, now I am doing better than I had ever done before. Now I seem to be on a roll. Maybe finally people are beginning to understand what it is that I was talking about, as the themes seem to now have so much more relevance to everyone.”

A probative response comes into view in Susan Graham’s latest projects. Graham relates: “I have started making much more involved, ephemeral pieces that take months to create and will ultimately be destroyed. I recently spent months creating Toile Landscape. Made of sugar, the piece sort of accrued on my wall over a year and a half. I think I felt (before the crash) like I needed to con- sider permanence, “sellability”, whether something can be shipped. The Toile Landscape piece does not exist unless I am there to install it, and remake the bits that inevitably are broken if it is moved. I originally started with ephemeral works and the crash brought me back to that.”

Regina Silveira, who lives in São Paulo, brings a global perspective: “Financial crises affecting the art world are felt and spoken about even more strongly in Europe than in the United States, while it seems much lighter in sever- al parts of Asia and paradoxically in emergent countries, like Brazil, consistently submerged into third world econo- my afflictions. Perhaps the natural state of dealing with successive crises made us experts in finding creative solutions. Artists of my generation, beginning careers in the 70’s, are very used to strategies that were then need- ed to create and to make room for alternative work, far from the art market, and to interact in the artistic arena. The focus was more political and certainly much more into the real functions of art. I believe these functions are magical, that art magically intermediates the experience of the world. But time has changed—art also–we possibly need new strategies. At this point in my life and career, I would like to think that I made the right movements, from the beginning taking art as a poetical investigation, and not submitting to the art market contingencies.”

Michelle Jaffé cites a moderate influence on the vision of her practice: “Like 9/11, it has not fundamentally changed what I seek to do with my work. The 2008 economic recession immediately made me decide to simplify a large scale sculpture and& sound installation I was, and still am working on. I decided it had to be more agile, less physically cumbersome, less financially demanding, with- out compromising the integrity or ambition of the vision for this work.”

And if it’s all about the downturn, sound out cartoonist David Sipress. He remarks: “I work for the New Yorker. I always tend to focus on issues, interests and obsessions that are out in the culture. I can’t think of an issue that’s more on people’s minds than the economy, so I tend to make a lot of cartoons about that. I believe that all humor, and my humor specifically, is about anxiety; what scares people, what upsets them, what worries them. This approach is not unique to me—think Woody Allen or Roz Chast. So the economic downturn has been a terrific resource in terms of coming up with ideas. Everybody’s worried about it and that’s what I like to make work about. Above all, when I’m searching for ideas, I look in the mirror. When my worries match the worries that are out there, that’s when humor happens. People love and need to laugh about their worries.”
One can argue that adverse economic circumstances draw out, even enhance creative possibilities. I consulted critic Carol Kino on the good/bad question and the current cli- mate in the art world.

Kino responds: “I don’t think the art world has been as affected by the downturn as some other creative (and non-creative) fields. In fact I think it has remained oddly insulated. It’s as tough on lower-end artists as it has always been, maybe even tougher, but on the higher end of the spectrum, while I did see a brief anxiety for a while, this has mostly passed. I have not seen any gallery shows that I can think of off-hand that seem rep- resentative of this trend. With museums, the impact has been more clear-cut. Among other things it has resulted in some very interesting permanent collection shows, which is great under any circumstances and should be inspiring for artists, too. In my opinion, a bad economy is not always a bad thing for art! I also think we had way too many galleries in New York before the recession and it didn’t hurt anyone to lose a few (except the artists they represented, of course). I’d also be willing to bet that their numbers are back up again.”

She goes on to say: “One of the things I find most depressing about the current art world is just that it is rather dull, and there are still too many galleries. I start- ed writing about art in the early 1990’s, at the bottom of what was a terrible art market recession. The art in gal- leries back then wasn’t great either. I would have to spend all day tromping around to find maybe one good show. But there was also much more interesting alterna- tive stuff going on. The impression I had back then was that the dealers who had stuck it out in the art business were totally committed to it and just couldn’t do some- thing else, so that made for a lot of intensity. Artists were also more inclined to organize shows themselves because there just weren’t the commercial rewards avail- able to lure them away.”

I am curious about what effects these times are generat- ing. In previous downturns, there were noticeable indica- tors beyond galleries closings that marked a recession, i.e. smaller work, expanding markets for photography, more multiples projects, and the ascension of art fairs, etc.

Michelle Jaffé mentions that “many artists are incorporat- ing trash, objects to be thrown out are instead subsumed into their artwork, as the components and structure that makes up their artwork, noting this “is two-fold: not hav- ing to pay for materials, and also a comment on con- sumer society. Many artists are creating ways to get out there, to become known, outside of traditional channels of the gallery: to create their own opportunities, from tak- ing the work directly to the streets, to pop up gallery spaces, driving traffic to their web sites, etc. They are more proactive in every way to get noticed.”

Jen Dalton sees “a resurgence in art-as-experience, ‘Relational Aesthetics’ type work that mobilizes people and does not necessarily manifest in physical products. This kind of work was going on before the crash also, of course, but it seems to be increasingly widespread and influential.”

Terry Adkins observes “many have turned to video and photography, which have become viable extensions of their work.” Digital processes are a sign of the times, as is evidenced in Ross Racine’s approach. He says: “The weak economy has had no effect on my materials or working process. I still create the images I want to see with the tools I need to use to create them. I am also very lucky not to need a studio, as the medium of com- puter drawing enables me to work at home.” He sees “a definite return to smaller sizes. And also an increased use of inexpensive and found materials,” but observes “this trend was already noticeable before the recession (see the “unmonumental” esthetic); it just fits well with the leaner times.”

Regina Silveira sees new developments in “the ways artists have been expanding the locus for their activities away from the white cube now in a much more expanded arena, and more socially motivated. Not only are the infi- nite territory of the Internet and virtual spaces available for poetical/political interventions, but also the urban ter- ritories themselves; many times these locations are trans- national.”

So the squeeze continues and some concerns are amplified, especially for artists just starting out, but there are many reasons how and why creative activity materializes. I set to out see how the economy is affecting artists’ work and processes, but the opposite is equally com- pelling. I see instead the way art performs, not as a cur- ative force, but how through humor, pensive thought, argument and innovative process, it develops terrain in which unrestrained exchanges of creative interaction are possible.


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Written by James Chute, U-T San Diego, October 12, 2012

"An Interview with Susan Graham"

Robin Tung, DAILYSERVING, October 12, 2012

"Susan Graham: Artist Uses Porcelain, Sugar to Make Industrial Goods Seem Dainty"

Lillian Cox, EncinitasPatch, October 12, 2012

"Dark and Light Combine in Brooklyn Sculptor’s Work at Lux"

by Patricia Morris Buckley, North County Times, October 2, 2012

"Sweet and Scary at Lux Art Institute"

by James Chute, U-T San Diego, October 2, 2012

"When Bad is Good: Creativity and the Downturn"

by Claire Lieberman, Art Experience NYC, September 5, 2011

"This Week: Must-See Arts in the City"

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"Brooklyn Local"

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"Sweet Seduction in Varied Forms"

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"Dateline Brooklyn-A Stereoscpoic Vision"

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"ART/ARCHITECTURE; Power and Glory in Sisterhood"

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"Sci-Fi and Gardens"

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"The Aesthetic Bounty of Night and Day"

 by Helen A. Harrison, New York Times,  August 19, 2001